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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

Becoming Miss Navajo. Powerful shawl scarves. Water monsters. Cherokee aerospace engineers.

These are just some of the stories in the books honored by the American Library Association Youth Media Awards this year with American Indian Youth Literature Awards, which showcase the best in children’s and young adult literature.

The top three winners announced Monday, Jan. 24, are “Herizon,” written by Daniel W. Vandever, Diné, and illustrated by Corey Begay, also Diné, for Best Picture Book; “Healer of the Water Monster,” written by Brian Young, Diné, with cover art by Shonto Begay, Diné, for Best Middle Grade Book; and “Apple (Skin to the Core),” by Eric Gansworth, Onondaga, with cover art by Filip Peraić.

More than a dozen other books received honors from the association. Awarded every two years, ALAYMA seeks to find the best-written stories and illustrations for young people that are by and about Indigenous peoples of North America.

“We looked at what is going on with Native communities today and what message is being sent in the stories themselves, as well as the representation,” Vanessa “Chacha” Centeno, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the award chair of the association, told Indian Country Today by Zoom from Sacramento, California.

“I really enjoy seeing the books that are actually developed by a complete Native team of writer, illustrator and editor,” Centeno said. “So, we looked at all that as well as what messages are going to go out when these books are received in schools and public libraries and tribal libraries and communities.”

The selection committee is careful to make sure there is no stereotyping, that the stories are sensitive to elders, and that children and women are properly displayed.

“A lot of them did a wonderful job of that,” said jury co-chair, Anne Heidemann. “Even the ones that aren't on the award selection list, there were some fabulous titles that were given for consideration. You're looking at all different tribes, and all different kinds of issues. You want to be inclusive to try to give equal weight to all these different things that you're looking at.”

Issues that are important in urban environments are different in rez environments. The selection jury has to understand if the youth who are receiving the literature can connect to it, they said.

“There's also Two-Spirit or Indigenous queer representation that we do have in the books this year,” Centeno said. “For me as a public librarian, when I do go into classrooms, I often wonder if the teachers know how to discuss the literature, which is a whole other level of consideration with new youth issues.”

The main importance for the jury was that the stories represent Native people and tell stories that may not have been told before. This year they had the first Diné book written in the Diné language being recognized.

"For me, that’s huge,” Centeno said. “I don't want to say it's a taking back of who we are, because we've always been who we are, but when it's actually in a book now that's going to go out, it is powerful. We had so many books that were eligible this time, it’s just incredible. Our committee was just amazed at how many books we were reading.”

Three books for children and youth took top honors in the American Library Association's American Indian Youth Literature Awards for 2022. The winners, announced Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, are “Herizon,” written by Daniel W. Vandever, Diné, and illustrated by Corey Begay, also Diné, for Best Picture Book; “Healer of the Water Monster,” by Brian Young, Diné, with cover art by Shonto Begay,  Diné, for Best Middle Grade Book; and “Apple (Skin to the Core),” by Eric Gansworth, Onondaga, with cover art by Filip Peraić, for Best Young Adult Book. More than a dozen other books received honors from the association. (Photo courtesy of the American Library Association)

Illustrations play a large role, as the jurors look at what story is being told by the pictures. Can they see it clearly? How has the text been laid out on the page? That's something they look at as librarians who often read stories to children.

Centeno said publishers are working to produce more meaningful books.

“I think in mainstream publishing, outside of self-publishing and small press, there's more awareness of how things need to be done respectfully with Native culture and Native ways,” she said. “There's been a lot of work done by elders and librarians, advocacy, asking for this, saying, ‘We need to tell our own stories. We won't take books that have harmful language, that show our youth in an improper way.’”

The awards provide encouragement to the authors, illustrators and nominees, she said.

“Their stories, their experiences, their arts, who they are — it all matters, it's what we need,” Centeno said. “And we're recognizing it because it's what we need, and not just the Native community, but the publishers, the libraries, the education field. We need our own stories in these spaces.”

Centeno said the growing number of Indigenous writers is a sign that youths are getting more involved with their culture and future.

“I hope it encourages them to keep writing and to keep sharing, and to keep working with their community for these collaborations on how to tell stories,” Centeno said. “I really hope that there's more audio books in the future. I love audio books. The fact that the cast is Native on these, that's big and we need more of it. Sometimes when I go out and I talk about books, there's an emphasis that the book should be used as well as an oral story, because that is tradition of how stories were passed down.”

Here are the winners and honorees in each category:

Best Picture Book

"Herizon,” written by Daniel W. Vandever, Diné; illustrated by Corey Begay, Diné; and published by South of Sunrise Creative.+
“Herizon” follows the journey of a Diné girl as she helps her grandmother retrieve a flock of sheep, crossing land and water with the help of a magical scarf. “The inspiring story celebrates creativity and bravery, while promoting an inclusive future made possible through inter-generational strength and knowledge,” according to the association.
Honor titles
—“Diné Bich’eekę Yishłeeh (Diné Bizaad)/Becoming Miss Navajo” (English),” written by Jolyana Begay-Kroupa, Diné; designed by Corey Begay, Diné; and published by Salina Bookshelf, Inc.
—“Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Gold Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer,” written by Traci Sorell, Cherokee; illustrated by Natasha Donovan, Métis; and published by Millbrook Press.
—“Learning My Rights with Mousewoman,” written and illustrated by Morgan Asoyuf, Ts’msyen, and published by Native Northwest.
—“I Sang You Down From the Stars,” written by Tasha Spillet-Sumner, Cree and Trinidadian; illustrated by Michaela Goade, Tlingit & Haida; and published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, a division of Hachette Book Group.
—“We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know,” written by Traci Sorell, Cherokee; illustrated by Frané Lessac; narrated by a cast of Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribal representation; and published by Charlesbridge Publishing/ Live Oak Media.

Best Middle Grade Book
“Healer of the Water Monster,” written by Brian Young, Diné, with cover art by Shonto Begay, Diné. Published by Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The book tells the story of a youth, Nathan, who goes to spend the summer on the Navajo Nation with his grandmother, Nali. “One night, Nathan finds something extraordinary, a Holy Being from the Navajo Creation Story — a Water Monster — in need of help,” the association said. “With electric adventure and powerful love, Brian Young’s debut novel tells the tale of a seemingly ordinary boy who realizes he’s a hero at heart.”
Honor titles
—“Ella Cara Deloria: Dakota Language Protector,” written by Diane Wilson, Dakota; illustrated by Tashia Hart, Red Lake Anishinaabe; and published by Minnesota Humanities Center.
—“Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” written by Katrina M. Phillips, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe; and published by Pebble, an imprint of Capstone.
—“Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend,” written by Dawn Quigley, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe; illustrated by Tara Audibert, Wolastoqey; and published by Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
—“Peggy Flanagan: Ogimaa Kwe, Lieutenant Governor,” written by Jessica Engelking, White Earth Band of Ojibwe; illustrated by Tashia Hart, Red Lake Anishinaabe; and published by Minnesota Humanities Center.
—“The Sea in Winter,” written by Christine Day, Upper Skagit; cover art by Michaela Goade, Tlingit and Haida; and published by Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Best Young Adult Book
“Apple (Skin to the Core),” written by Eric Gansworth, Onondaga; cover art by Filip Peraić; and published by Levine Querido.
“Eric Gansworth tells his story, and the story of his family, of Onondaga among Tuscaroras, of Native folks everywhere,” the association notes. And although the term, “apple,” is considered a slur, “Eric shatters that slur and reclaims it in verse and prose and imagery that truly lives up to the word heartbreaking.”
Honor titles
—“Elatsoe,” written by Darcie Little Badger, Lipan Apache Tribe; cover art and illustrations by Rovina Cai; and published by Levine Querido.+
—“Firekeeper’s Daughter,” written by Angeline Boulley, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians; cover art by Moses Lunham, Ojibway and Chippewa; and published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers / Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.+
—“Hunting by Stars,” written by Cherie Dimaline, Métis Nation of Ontario; cover art by Stephen Flaude, Métis; and published by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS.
—“Notable Native People: 50 Indigenous Leaders, Dreamers, and Changemakers from Past and Present,” written by Adrienne Keene, Cherokee Nation; illustrated by Ciara Sana, Chamoru; and published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
—“Soldiers Unknown,” written by Chag Lowry, Yurok, Maidu and Achumawi; illustrated by Rahsan Ekedal; and published by Great Oak Press.

Members of the American Indian Youth Literature Award jury included are AILA President Aaron LaFromboise, Blackfeet Nation, Browning, Montana; Chair Vanessa “Chacha” Centeno, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Sacramento, California; Co-Chair Anne Heidemann, Mount Pleasant, Michigan; Lara Aase, San Marcos, California; Catherine Anton Baty, Big Sandy Rancheria, Austin, Texas; Naomi Bishop, Akimel O’odham, Tucson, Arizona; Joy Bridwell, Chippewa Cree Tribe, Box Elder, Montana; Erin Hollingsworth, Utqiaġvik, Alaska; Janice Kowemy, Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico; Sunny Day Real Bird, Apsaalooke Crow Tribe, Billings, Montana; and Allison Waukau, Menominee and Navajo, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For more information, visit the association’s website.

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